Jethro Tull-Palace Theater, Stamford, CT-11/08
Jethro Tull's Aqualung scored an entire generation’s nightmares. Mixing dark, heavy rock with equally spooky medieval fugues, Jethro Tull provided the bridge between psychedelic-rock and heavy metal. With Tull’s demon-like imagery firmly engraved on its cover sleeve, Aqualung, especially, seemed to represent the group's dangerous side—- a quality which always separated the quintet from other blues-inspired art-rockers. So it's both a symbol of Ian Anderson's mellowing personality, and satellite radio's growing might, that XM Radio sparked the theme for Jethro Tull's fall tour.
In late November, Jethro Tull will recreate Aqualung on XM Radio’s Then…Again…Live!. Arriving at the tail end of satellite radio’s most highly profitable year to date, this program seems to represent the new radio format’s power in the modern music industry. Since first recording Aqualung in 1971, several of the album’s key tracks have worked their way into the group’s repertoire. Yet a handful of cuts, including "Hymn 43," "Slipstream" and "Up To Me," never saw the light of day onstage. While the concept of bands recreating their classic albums onstage isn’t anything new, several of the acts scheduled to appear on Then…Again…Live! have begun to incorporate long shelved tracks into their setlist in advance of their radio broadcast (the Allman Brothers, for instance, played Eat a Peach’s "Blue Sky" for the first time since Dickey Betts’ 2000 departure). In preparation for their XM Radio gig, Jethro Tull decided to revisit their stock-setlist, weaving rare material into their song lists and giving several Aqualung tracks their first live readings.
Though Anderson has traditionally reserved the holiday season for his solo tours, this year the flutist decided to forego an individual outing to, in part, prepare for his upcoming radio spot. Unlike many frontman who make a solo-go, Anderson's recent "Rubbing Elbows" format plays out more like a talk show than a rock concert, blending interviews, acoustic sets, and quasi-comedy skits into his two-set show. While not quite as tongue-in-cheek as his solo tour, Anderson's current Tull outing falls somewhere between a traditional rock show and vaudeville performance. Using this offbeat outing to visit a smattering of secondary markets, the veteran performance group also offered, in essence, two shows. Mixing rare tracks, Yule Tide recordings, and a smorgasbord of greatest hits, Jethro Tull offered one of its most unique outings in years, devoting their first set to stripped-down, semi-acoustic material, and their second to "ear-bleeding music."
At times, Anderson's narratives came off closer to stand-up comedy than to arena-rock. Appearing loose and personable on the Stamford Theater's small stage, Anderson poked fun at his group's ever-changing lineup, joking about departed band members and vertically challenged bassist Jonathan Noyce. Turning merchandise plugs into mini-vignettes, Anderson also reminded fans that, despite their adventurous natures, Jethro Tull is still a working band. As musicians, this stripped down configuration seemed to suit Jethro Tull well, enabling Anderson to accent the full range of his flutes, while allowing guitarist Martin Barre to play around with some more subtle time signatures. Anderson also used this relaxed setting to perform several numbers on the guitar, his primary instrument before switching to woodwinds fulltime. A pairing of "Cheap Day Return" and "Mother Goose" proved particularly interesting, while the set closing "Bour#34; explored the group's classical leanings.
If Jethro Tull's first set fashioned the group into a VH1 Storytellers format, then the group’s second set would have fit snuggly in an episode of Hard Rock Live. While a bit compact, Tull stacked its second set with both tight hits and longer, instrumental workouts. Using his flute to color the group's dark rhythm section, Anderson worked as a support player, while Barre took a few tight solos. Opening with "Aqualung's" intro, Jethro Tull thematically tied its sets together, climaxing with an extended take on their albums title track. Extending the song's belly by a few extra minutes, Anderson and Barre, in particular, reminded fans that Jethro Tull could be a great, jamming band.
In the post-_Behind the Music_ era, it's hard for any classic-rock act to avoid traditional nostalgia-act trappings. Yet, in an odd way, Jethro Tull have avoided aging into a stale live offering by poking fun at their slowly, mellowing sound. Jethro Tull have shot the moon and created a fun, humorous, while still musically adventurous forum to display their songs.